Cross-Boundary Learning

University of Arizona students work with cross-disciplinary teams to solve company problems.
Eller College Students

Students from the Eller College of Management meet with staff from the Bard Date Company to determine ways to improve data pollination. (Photo courtesy of Eller College of Management)


STUDIES HAVE LONG shown that experiential activity creates a safe place for students to learn, make mistakes, and go out in the field to apply the skills they’ve learned in the classroom. But in an innovation economy, business schools have to broaden their definitions of experiential learning. As we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution, where digital advances are disrupting whole industries, we must be aware of two key trends in business: the convergence of the digital, biotech, and physical science fields; and the exponential speed of change.

To turn out the right graduates for this complex digital world, we must teach students to innovate at the intersection of multiple disciplines. We must shorten our learning cycles, and we must build relationships with industry partners. That is, we must deliver short, focused experiential learning programs that put students to work on multidisciplinary projects with real clients.

At the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management in Tucson, we deliver such programs through various innovation labs where business students team up with students from engineering, law, humanities, the biosciences, the life sciences, and other disciplines. MBA candidates spend one semester of their two-year program working with teammates and executives to solve problems submitted by our industry partners. These include corporations such as Microsoft, Raytheon, Banner Health, and Intel, as well as smaller and more socially driven organizations.


One project involving date palm trees in Yuma, Arizona, illustrates well the power of cross-boundary experiential learning. Date palms require meticulous cultivation; they need specific and consistent weather conditions, the right amount of irrigation and fertilizer, and an expensive pollen that must be administered within feet of the flower. To compound the challenge, date pollen typically retails for US$1,000 per liter, and current pollination methods all have drawbacks. In one approach, workers climb the trees—which can grow 50 feet tall—and shake a wand of pollen at the top. In another, workers blow pollen out with a tool that resembles a leaf blower, which sacrifices precision.

The Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture wanted our students to look for a better way to achieve date palm pollination. The center submitted a project that is part of our Go to Market Initiative and that has been embedded in our graduate-level Special Topics in Entrepreneurship course; it is funded in part by a foundation endowment and supported by Tech Launch Arizona.

During the 2018-2019 school year, Eller students joined forces with engineering students to experiment with aerial pollination methods, which included attaching a pollen dispenser to the bottom of a drone flown over the flowers. On their first few practice runs, they had a 75 percent success rate.

Students now are working to make their approach more commercial and scalable. Some team members are experimenting with flying the drones over the flowers using algorithms based on image recognition and signals from various attached sensors. Others are developing a business plan to present to prospective investors. For the student team, the true aha moment came when they integrated market demands and commercialization opportunities into the engineering design of the solution.

Most important, the students realized that they can use a multidisciplinary thought process to address related problems in agriculture and other fields. They now understand how crucial it will be to collaborate with people from other backgrounds and disciplines once they’re in the working world.


Students at Eller are embarking on other multidisciplinary projects that could have a real impact on human lives. For instance, last fall, students from Eller’s MBA and master’s of public health programs—three of whom were also physicians—explored the costs and benefits of using pharmacogenomics to test for heart disease. This relatively new field of study combines traditional medicine with a knowledge of heredity to develop effective pharmaceuticals tailored to individual genetics. Working with one of the school’s industry partners, the team determined that using a $150 cheek swab test on heart disease patients would generate a positive ROI for the organization. This project is part of a seminar course that has been so successful that we now are developing an online version.

We have additional collaborative initiatives underway, including plans to open a biotech innovation and commercialization lab in partnership with the College of Medicine in Phoenix and a sustainability and digital health lab that will be part of the new Arizona Forge incubator. The incubator is being created through a collaboration among the Eller College, the College of Sciences, various industry partners, and Biosphere 2—a research facility that focuses on understanding global scientific issues related to the Earth’s living systems. Next, we plan to open a data science innovation lab to create cross-boundary solutions in disciplines that range from fintech to retail to healthcare.

We believe that, in the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, business schools have to be leaders that forge partnerships with industry representatives and other units on campus. Only then can we create cross-disciplinary experiential opportunities for all students—and prepare them for the increasingly fast-moving and collaborative future of work.

Paulo B. Goes is the dean and Halle Chair in Leadership at the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management in Tucson.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's May/June 2019 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].

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